Protestants speak of the term sola Scriptura as foundational to our understanding the Bible. But, what does it mean? And, why is it important?
The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture. (John MacArthur via Ligonier)
“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” — Westminster Confession of Faith
You’ll notice that the terms sufficiency and authority are spoken of here. The point is that God has intentionally provided his people with sufficient answers and guidance to the things that really matter. We can be assured that we have what we need to faithfully live the Christian life and make the decisions that need to be made.
Most Christians would not deny this. On paper we embrace and love the Bible. However, in practice we may find ourselves denying sola Scriptura and embracing sola Cardia (the heart alone). How so? Let me give you four common ways Evangelicals can deny sola Scriptura:
By not reading it.
If we believe, like Jesus, that the Word of God is our bread, our food (Mt. 4:4) then we will eat it. The way we eat it is to read it, meditate upon it, and delight in it. As a pastor sometimes I feel like a dad trying to convince my kids to eat vegetables, “It is good for you. You need to eat this to grow. You will develop a taste for it.” The bottom line is simply this: it is folly to say we affirm sola Scriptura while not reading the Bible. When we do this we are saying, “I don’t need the Bible.” This is one way Evangelicals can practically deny sola Scriptura.
By not seeking it.
We can tell what we value by seeing what we turn to when we are in trouble. If I get crushing news I can tell who my friends are because I call them first. If I don’t know what to do then I can see who I think is wise because I reach out to them. Where do you go when you don’t know what to do? Or, when you are told that what you are doing is questionable? What is the arbitrator of what is right and wrong, or what wise or foolish?
The (fallen) reflex is to look inward. We look towards our hearts and what we “feel” is right. How should I respond to this situation? Well, how does it make me feel? What should I do about what so and so said? Well, I think that I should do such and such. You see the reflex don’t you? I’m sure you feel it as well. The impulse in our falseness is to look within rather than without. Our default mode is not sola Scriptura but sola cardia (the heart alone). This is inadvisable because it is so dangerous. The heart will not be a sober guide it is drunk on self. It is jaded, bought off, and compromised. The Scripture says it is “deceitful” and untrustworthy (Jer. 17:9). Who can trust it? (rhetorical question here). Like anything else, the first step in dealing with sola cardia would be to realize that it is a tendency and that it is an ill-advised tendency.
By not obeying it.
Another way is to simply not obey it. There is a point in time when we have to come face to face with what the Bible says about us and our circumstances. The initial incident is at conversion when we realize that we are a sinner deserving of God’s strict justice. We then repent and trust in Christ. However, this posture of hearing God’s verdict about our thoughts and actions is the ongoing pattern of lives as Christians. To not do what the Bible says is not only to sin in action but also to sin in thought by thinking that God is not God–and his Word is not authoritative.
Remember what the Bible does:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Timothy 3:16)
It is folly to say that we affirm sola Scriptura but deny that the Bible has the authority to speak into our lives in a corrective way.
By not applying it.
One of the things that I really like about the Westminster Confession of Faith statement above is how it claims that we have what we need to live and make decisions. The content has been “expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture.” This means that we should be able to have our decisions supported by or at the very least framed by the Scripture. In other words, every significant decision we make should not be contradicted but rather supported by the Scripture.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)
Paul makes it clear that our minds need to be renewed. Our wills, minds, emotions–everything about us, need to submit to the Word of God. We need to be renewed. We should not rely upon ourselves but upon the Word of God. It is folly to say that we affirm sola Scriptura and then rely upon subjective, fallen sources of authority rather than the Scripture.
By not preaching it.
It would follow then that a sufficient Bible that must be read, obeyed and applied would be preached. Pastors who do not preach the Bible betray any commitment to sola Scriptura. As nice and entertaining as stories, jokes, and authenticity are–they cannot bear the freight of God’s work in the pulpit. God means to have his people’s minds renewed.
It is folly for a pastor to say that he affirms sola Scriptura only to not preach the Word of God on Sunday mornings (2 Tim. 4:2).
All of this comes down to is the uncomfortable fact that based upon many people’s lives, we don’t need the Bible.
If we don’t read it then it must be because we don’t think we need to.
If we don’t seek it then it must be because we don’t think we need to.
If we don’t obey it then it must be because we don’t think we need to
If we don’t apply it then it must be because we don’t think we need to
If we don’t preach it then it must be because we don’t think we need to
There is a better way. Instead of walking along the difficult murky waters of personal subjectivity God has called us to peer into the wonderfully sufficient, clear ocean of his Word. Read, seek, hear, obey, apply, and preach the Word of God. Receive and rest upon the Scripture, because, after all, it is absolutely sufficient. Reject sola cardia and rest in sola Scriptura. God knew what he was doing when he gave it to us and told us to obey it.